Thursday, June 22, 2006

Pluto's recently discovered moons have been given names: Nix and Hydra, after the Greek goddess of night and the nine-headed monster slain by Hercules, respectively. has the details.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

I was contacted this week by a publisher in London to write a book with the working title, 100 Characters from the Bible. Something to keep me busy.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Israel has taken a lot of negative publicity over the rocket shelling incident where 8 Palestinian civilians were killed. Of course, the context, that the Palestinians had been shooting rockets at the Israelis for the last several days before goes unmentioned. And then there are questions about whether the Palestinian civilians were actually killed by the Israelis at all:

An Israel Defense Forces intelligence officer has confirmed that the explosion that killed eight Palestinians on Friday, was caused by a stockpile of Hamas explosives.

"Shortly after we stopped defensive firing at Hamas rocket launch pads which were deployed behind Palestinian human shields, members of Hamas scrambled to fire more rockets at our positions," said Col. M. "We have eyes on every meter of Gaza, from the sky, from the ground and from the sea. One of their rocket tripods collapsed inadvertently setting off an explosion of a stockpile of Qassam rockets. The Palestinians killed their own children. And this was not the first time."

Hamas terrorists fired rockets and mortar bombs from a crowded Gaza beach at southern Israel. Some of the rockets fell near the Israel city of Ashkelon. Some 17 rockets were fired between Saturday and Sunday morning. A man at a school in the Israel town of Sderot was wounded, Israel officials said.

Israel Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant said today that the Israel Defense Forces has additional evidence that it wasn't Israel artillery that hit the beach in Gaza. Galant, who commands Israel's southern command, said Israel stopped firing 15 minutes before the explosion. It's all on secure videotape from both sides of the conflict. Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he was sorry about the deaths, which included three children.

The full report is available from Israel News Agency.

Of course, one should be suspect of information that matches what one wants to be true. One should be as skeptical of it as one is of information that is disagreeable. It is entirely possible that this report is bogus. Time will tell. On the other hand, given that the Palestinians have lied in the past (remember the Jenin massacre that never was?) it would not surprise me if we eventually discover that this report from the Israel News Agency is correct.

Odd thing. There is a tendency lately for the news to uncritically report any bit of dasterdly behavior that our enemies accuse us or our allies of committing, and a willingness to believe the absolute worst about American troops and American government behavior, and to assume anything that Israel or the US does must be evil and done for bad reasons. Odd really.

Explain to me again who it is that saws off people's heads, oppresses women, tosses dissidents into jail, restricts freedom of press and speach, and riots over cartoons? And we're going to believe them when they criticize US troops and Israel? And give them a respectful hearing? How come?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

My books are now listed on my publishers website: Antediluvian and Somewhen Obscurely. The paperback version of Somewhen Obscurely is listed as "coming soon."
I teach a Sunday school class. One person this morning asked whether it was wrong to feel happy about Zarqawi being dead as a consequence of the US Military dropping two 500 pound bombs on his head. We had a good discussion. And I have continued to contemplate the issue.

There are, in the Bible, what are termed the "imprecatory Psalms." These are Psalms which call for the destruction of enemies. Many who read such poems come away very disturbed by what they say. Consider, for instance, Psalm 137, which ends by commenting "O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us--he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks."

The emotions reflected in the Psalm seem at odds with our picture of a loving God and the central biblical command to "love others." And yet, for anyone who has suffered injustice or evil, the emotions reflected in Psalm 137, if we're honest with ourselves, resonate with us and give vent to our own feelings.

And yet, Proverbs 22:17-18 says this: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him.”

Jesus tell us repeatedly to “love our neighbors" and to "love our enemies." So there is a natural tendency for some Christians, perhaps most, to feel guilty if they feel any joy over the death of even a terrorist like Al-Zarqawi, who was responsible for personally murdering many people.

But there is more to the biblical picture that needs to be considered in dealing with this question. We must consider the story of Purim, which is a time of celebration for the death of the evil Haman and his monstrous plans (see Esther 8-9). We might want to consider, too, the sense of the book of Revelation, whose aim is to provide comfort for the persecuted in the face of their persecution, with the promise that those who have tormented them will be destroyed. Consider the words of Revelation 18:20, regarding the destruction of Babylon (i.e., the City of Rome): “Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.' And of course we find the Song of Moses in Exodus 15, where the people rejoice over their deliverance from the Egyptians, and their great pleasure that the army that pursued them perished by drowning in the Red Sea.

So how to reconcile the two ideas of love for the enemy, with joy over his destruction? Can it be done? Or should we consider that the law of love trumps anything else that might seem in conflict?

Perhaps it's akin to the biblical prohibition on murder. If I kill my neighbor for letting dandelions grow in his lawn, then I’m a murderer. But if I’m a soldier who kills the enemy, or a police officer who kills a bad guy, or I kill someone in self-defense or to protect someone else, then I’m a hero. If I take money from your wallet, I'm a theif, but if the government does it, it's taxation and perfectly legitimate.

It is a complex issue biblically, related I think to the question of whether war is ever appropriate. Those who accept pacificism will view it as never being legitimate. Personally, I think that's hard to justify biblically, let alone realistically, as much as I like the sentiment and wish it could be true, and in fact as much as I would prefer it to be true.

The nature of love, what it feels like from God, seems to depend on our relationship to him. Consider another Psalm, Psalm 136, which tells us repeatedly that God's love endures forever. the Psalm lists a variety of things that the Psalmist thinks illustrates how great God's love is:

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever.

to him who alone does great wonders, His love endures forever.

who by his understanding made the heavens, His love endures forever.

who spread out the earth upon the waters, His love endures forever.

And so it goes, with the poet talking about a variety of blessings that illustrate how God's "love endures forever." But then the Psalmist writes:

to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt His love endures forever.

And then:

who struck down great kings, His love endures forever.

and killed mighty kings-- His love endures forever.

Sihon king of the Amorites His love endures forever.

and Og king of Bashan-- His love endures forever.

I suspect that the first born of Egypt, Sihon, and Og might not have "felt the love" as they died. But for the Israelites, gaining deliverance from their enemies, the deaths of the first born and these kings seemed quite loving. How we feel about God's love seems to depend on which side we're on; kind of like fire. If we're cold and sitting next to it, it feels good. If we've stuck our finger into it, it feels bad. If I kill the murderer attempting to kill my friend, my friend will "feel the love" from me. The murderer's opinion might be different. But who cares?

In the final analysis, I, personally, cannot feel guilty for being happy that an evil, murderous, depraved thug can no longer kill people. Zarqawi was depraved and the world is a better place without him.
From AP, as reported in several places (emphasis added):

Hamas' military wing on Friday said it would no longer honor a truce with Israel following a deadly Israeli artillery strike that killed seven civilians.

"The earthquake in the Zionist towns will start again," said a leaflet distributed by the militants at a Hamas rally Friday night. "The resistance groups ... will choose the proper place and time for the tough, strong and unique response."

Israel and the Palestinians declared the truce in February 2005. Hamas, which has killed scores of Israelis in suicide bombings, has largely abided by the cease-fire.

"Largely" abided. Kind of like being only a little bit pregnant, eh? So Israel is the one who bears the guilt of violating this truce, not the Palestinians. Those rocket attacks from Gaza that preceded the Israeli strike, and the suicide bomber in Tel Aviv in April, just for example (there have been a lot of attacks) well, those didn't violate the truce. Palestinians can never violate a truce. Only Jews can violate truces, according to the AP. Only if Israel decides to try to defend itself is it then a violation of the truce and so the Palestinians are acting appropriately in ending it. They've been provoked, poor babies.

And yet the AP and those who repeat their report that Israel is the bad guy would be horribly offended if anyone were to suggest that they might be even the slightest bit anti-Semitic. Well, if it quacks like a duck and has feathers like a duck...

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Palestinian Media Watch has subtitled videos taken from Palestinian TV. An example is a video of eleven year old girls describing how they very much want to become martyrs (Shahid), to experience martyrdom (Shahada):

Interviewer: You described Shahada as something beautiful. Do you think it is beautiful?

Walla: Shahada is a very beautiful thing. Everyone yearns for Shahada. What could be better than going to paradise?

Interviewer: What is better, peace and full rights for the Palestinian people or Shahada?

Walla: Shahada. I will achieve my rights after becoming a shahid. We won't stay children forever.

Interviewer: Ok, Yussra, would you agree with that?

Yussra: Of course. It is a good [sweet] thing. We don't want this world, we want the Afterlife. We benefit not from this life but from the Afterlife. All Palestinians, not like other youth, are hot tempered, they choose Shahada, since they are Palestinian.

For those who wonder why there is no peace in the Middle East, this sort of thing may serve as a bit of a clue.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Many years ago when I was in college, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of my summers working on a kibbutz in Israel. What is a kibbutz? It is a communal farm. So think of communes, but run by hard working people who are not on drugs, wear shorts and t-shirts and often carried guns since this particular commune was on the border next to a country that at the time harbored terrorists and was in a state of war with Israel. The kibbutz was surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Every morning I was awakened at 4:00 AM by a nice young man toting an Uzi who’d knock on my door and call out “good morning” in Hebrew. I’d toss on my clothes and then stumble out to begin an eight hour shift in the fields. I worked six days a week, from about four in the morning until noon. It was a farm, after all: a farm located 600 feet below sea level where the temperatures rose to over 100 by noon.

Combining socialism and Zionism kibbutzim were a unique Israeli experiment which endured for over fifty years as utopian communities. Today, most kibbutzim which survive are not much different from the capitalist enterprises and regular towns to which the kibbutzim were originally supposed to be alternatives. No more than about seven percent of the Israeli people ever lived on kibbutzim.

Eleven people founded the first kibbutz in 1909 at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee, the lake that the Israelis call Lake Kineret (which means “harp”). That first kibbutz was called Degania. By the beginning of World War II there were hundreds of kibbutzim with a combined population of around 25,000, about five percent of the total Jewish population in Palestine at the time.

The kibbutz I worked on was located within five miles of Degania. It had been founded in the 1930s by Jewish people who had come there from Rumania. They called it Kibbutz Massada. When I worked there in the mid 1970’s there were about 300 people living there, men, women and children. Kibbutz Massada was located right on the Jordanian border.

The kibbutzim of Israel raised a variety of crops; many also housed factories and ran hotels for tourists. Kibbutz Massada had a small factory that manufactured valves for engines, but primarily it was a farm. They raised chickens and dairy cows, and had fields of date palms, banana trees, alfalfa, olives, and citrus fruits.

My first job on the kibbutz was working in the banana fields. Banana trees are swamp plants and in the old days, they would actually flood the fields. Today, they use a drip irrigation system, something that the Israelis invented in order to conserve water. Nevertheless, the fields are incredibly muddy, and filled with insects and enormous spiders. How enormous? Their webs stretched between trees for ten feet. There’s nothing like walking down a row of trees to suddenly find yourself face to face with a fist-sized spider hanging midair between trees on a barely visible web.

Each banana tree grows one enormous bunch of bananas that is so large and heavy that it will pull the tree over long before the bananas are ripened. Therefore, the trees need to be propped upright, to keep that from happening. I went throught the fields, putting down two poles for each tree on one day, and then on another day going back and using them to prop the trees upright.

My next job on the kibbutz was working with the date palms. Standing upwards of twenty or thirty feet tall, I had to ride a motorized cherrypicker, very similar to those things you see the workers using to fix street lights or telephone poles in order to reach the tree tops. I’d lift myself up in one of those to the place where the date bunches were growing so I could tie the bunch to a couple of limbs. Otherwise, the bunch would fall out of the tree before the dates were ripe. Like banana trees, date trees are not concerned with their fruits staying nice so that they may be consumed by people. The trees only want their seeds to be scattered.

Creatures of various sorts lived in the date palms. Besides the expected bugs, it was a common occurance to find chamelions, their enormous eyes swiviling in different directions as they watched both you and the fly they were interested in consuming. Chamelions were not the only large animal in the treetops. There were also rats, who would startle me by suddenly leaping out, only to fall the twenty to thirty feet down to the ground below.

The date trees I worked in were located on the edge of the Jordanian border. Next to the field, I could look down and see a dirt road. Beside the road, there was a barbed wire fence; beyond that, there was a smooth track of brown, dusty dirt where one could see little metal mounds every so often: a mine field. A second barbed wire fence separated that mine field from the water of the Yarmuk River.
Occasionally, running along the fence one would see wild boars; they’d dart from the bushes beside the river, and then scurry back again. One day, as I was tying date bunches to palm fronds, I heard a loud “thump” from the direction of the border. I looked over just in time to see a boar arching through the air. It had accidentally hit one of the mines. I have enjoyed telling people ever since that I’ve seen a pig fly.

The kibbutz citizens—kibbutzniks—had many stories to tell. Around the kibbutz, among the gardens and manicured lawns surrounding their homes, were several concrete bunkers: bomb shelters. Kibbutz Masada, like dozens of the kibbutzim near the Sea of Galilee, existed within the shadow of the mountains called the Golan Heights. Until 1967, when Israel took them from Syria following the Six Day War, the Syrians had controlled those mountains. Every night between 1948 and 1967, the Syrians regularly lobbed shells from those mountains onto the kibbutzim. The children grew up spending their nights sleeping in those bomb shelters. Even in the mid 1970s when I was there, the evidence of past shelling was clearly visible in the destroyed buildings. They told me about how one night a bomb landed in the middle of their communal cafeteria. In the date fields, I saw several stumps of date trees that had been destroyed by incoming shells.

Today, those concrete shelters that used to protect the Israelis from the nightly barages are used simply as store rooms. Keep those nightly shellings in mind the next time you hear talk that the Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza are the cause of violence. Between 1948 and 1967 when the Syrians nightly bombed the kibbutzniks, the Israelis weren’t in either the West Bank or Gaza. So what was the excuse then?